Where We Live

Living Outside the Box Along Encounter Row

By Diane Reynolds
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, December 29, 2007

In April 1972, Better Homes and Gardens featured the Pacesetter model home in Columbia in a glossy multipage color spread.

Focusing on its contemporary look, sliding-glass doors, interior courtyard deck, wall-to-wall carpeting and $27,000 price tag for a three-bedroom, two-bath house, the magazine presented the Pacesetter as the best in modern living for young couples on a limited budget. An even less expensive model featured two bedrooms and one bath.

Today, the single-level, 850- and 1,220-square-foot Pacesetter houses that line Encounter Row and the four courts that extend from it define the enclave and remain a distinctive alternative to the large Colonial-style houses more common in the region.

"For very little money, we had an architect-designed house," said Phil Engelke, an original Pacesetter owner.

Architect Barry Berkus, president of Berkus Design Studios in Santa Barbara, Calif., planned the homes as prototypes for modular construction. Berkus, who lives in Scottsdale, Ariz., said in a recent interview that he designed the houses to accommodate a growing population and shrinking lot sizes.

Among the unusual features of the homes are wooden privacy fences that block the houses from the street and create an intimate outdoor room off the front-yard-facing kitchen.

"It does fly in the face of the new urbanism, everyone on the front porch waving at each other," Berkus said, comparing his work with a more recent trend. "The private patio space is more like a European courtyard."

With small houses, outdoor space and privacy are both important, he said, so that people don't feel crowded.

Berkus said he was influenced by Frank Lloyd Wright's Usonian homes, which were meant to be affordable and mass-produced.

Single-family houses such as these would never be built today because they are too small and too unboxlike to be economically feasible, Engelke said. Now people build townhouses, which limits how they can adapt them, he said.

In contrast, Encounter Row homeowners have personalized the Pacesetters. Some have added large two-story additions. Others have converted the central interior deck to a sunroom or family room. Some, like the Engelkes, have added a foyer to connect the carport to the house and have turned the carport into a family room, study or studio.

"They're a canvas you can project yourself onto," Engelke said. "This house is not intimidating. It's easy to adapt."

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